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Treading the Postdoc World: The Joys and The Struggles

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Author: Neelam Mukherjee | Category: GSBS Alumni | Cancer Biology | Cancer Biology | October 02, 2017

It’s almost going to be two years since I started working as a postdoctoral fellow and I still become a little embarrassed if someone suddenly addresses me as “Dr. Mukherjee” rather than Neelam.

I actually had a really hard time adapting to that change. Initially, I thought it was either a case of PTSD from grad school leading to utter disbelief that I actually reached the end of the tunnel or the “kids never become grownups to their parents” syndrome since I never left my awesome parent institution. Finally after some heavy self-psychoanalysis, I realized I was just plain scared of that title because it represented that now I was out of the protective shelter of grad school into the real word and it was time to take some real decisions. The postdoc years are indeed the most formative ones in your career because whatever route you take during these years can either break or make your career. It got harder for me because while finishing my Ph.D. I started to have serious doubts about whether this is what I want to do for the rest of my life.

It was also the same time that I quite fortuitously met my current postdoc mentor, Dr. Robert Svatek (Rob). He was kind enough to allow me to shadow him during some of his procedures where I collected tumor tissues for my dissertation project. For someone who has never been in the operation theatre, the construction of a neo-bladder using intestinal tissues after you remove the original tumor laden bladder is probably one of the coolest things you can observe. The patience and respect with which he interacted with the residents and explained the details to me, I knew he was a great teacher. So when I graduated and he offered me the job to be the postdoc in his lab it was not a hard decision to make. Further, the highly translational nature of his work sealed the deal for me.

However, I joined Rob’s lab when I was feeling quite disillusioned and that was the best decision I could have made at that time. I cannot stress enough the importance of having the right mentor in a trainee’s career. Being a scientist can be a lonely affair so you need that person who understands it and shares your journey. Rob is one of the most passionate physician scientists I have come across and the love he has for both of his jobs is infectious. You cannot be around him and not be excited about science. This does not mean we don’t have rough days. He is also a very type A person and a competitive athlete. So the sheer outburst of ideas on some days can challenge you to greatness and on other days drive you a little crazy. But you can’t complain because you have a mentor who works equally hard in the clinic as in the lab and on top of that has energy left to do competitive sports. It’s intimidating but a privilege to have someone like that as your mentor and I hope I can maintain this relationship throughout my life. 

We do have disagreements but he has this uncanny ability of getting all his criticisms across without being condescending. He does not believe in the ‘boss’ culture and treats all his lab members with great respect and more importantly as colleagues working together towards a common goal. Further, his quirky sense of humor is a definite bonus on those long lab days. Working with him and being a part of his superb lab team really brought back my lost love for science and research for which I will remain forever grateful.

It’s always exciting when your work gets recognized by your peers. So whether it’s getting a poster award at the recent San Antonio Postdoctoral Research Forum or the John Quale travel fellowship to attend the Bladder Cancer Advocacy Network Think Tank meeting at Charlotte this year; you feel reaffirmed that the tireless hours in the lab are actually having an impact. The bladder cancer advocacy network (BCAN) is a community of advocates, survivors, medical and research professionals who work together to support people whose lives have been touched by bladder cancer. It’s a relatively new organization being founded in 2005 but it has been on the front-lines for quite some time generating public awareness and increased funding for bladder cancer research. So for someone like me who has worked with bladder cancer since my graduate school years it was a great honor to get the fellowship to attend their Think Tank meeting. 

The John Quale Program is aimed at engaging early career physicians and researchers working in the field of bladder cancer. I have attended larger scientific meetings in the past but this meeting was special because it felt being part of a close knit group who really cares about their goal. I got to meet with advocates, survivors and also the field experts at the same time. Working in the lab, I sometimes feel we can get too focused on our project and get secluded from the outside world. Meeting patients and learning about their lives make you realize that there is a greater purpose here and I can tell you getting their acknowledgment and encouragement will mean much more to you than any number of first author papers. It’s been a while I felt that motivated that I did in those three days of the conference. The talks and discussions were illuminating and facilitated a number of fruitful collaborations. My talk was on the second day of the meeting and since this was my first scientific talk at a conference outside UT--- I was sort of pumped up. 

Having the support of Rob and my labmate, Dr. Ji who also attended with me, made it all the more fun. My talk was specifically focused on cancer preventing mechanisms of innate immune effector cells such as NK cells and provided new insights into the biology of carcinogen-induced bladder cancer illuminating a variety of approaches that could thwart bladder cancer development. I could not have chosen a better audience because there was some great feedback which will be really useful in my future work. The commendable feature of the BCAN meeting was the fostering environment they were able to create for the younger scientists. Sometimes scientific meetings can get very impersonal where people just come and present their bit but during my time at the BCAN I felt that the whole group including all the established scientists are vested in the work the younger people are doing and want them to succeed. One really nice experience was when Diane Quale, the founder of the organization, came up to me and we had a great chat about my career goals and future research. It was a really awesome experience to get involved with BCAN and I am sure this collaboration is going to develop more in the upcoming years.

Finally, a number of current students in GSBS sometimes come up to me for advice or just ask me about my overall experience from graduate student to being a postdoc in UT Health probably because I am one of the few remaining specimens of our alumni group who did not leave. And I can tell you a very shiny story of someone who came with one suitcase in a country where she did not know a single person and it was all great and awesome but that will be a big fat lie. Truth is it was pretty rough. During the five years of grad school I struggled with everything imaginable both personally and professionally. My heart got broken, my project was failing, papers were getting delayed and I lost a couple of very dear family friends in India whom I did not even get to see for the last time. But if you ask me “was it all worth it?” The answer will be a very vehement “YES!” I like the person I have become because of those events but what truly got me through were my parents and some great friends. Luckily, I did not grow up in a competitive household and this may sound like blasphemy given the current rat race world we live in. What my mom always tells me and which really helps me during the bad days is that “if in a day you were not lazy, gave your best, treated everyone with kindness and spent it with integrity consider that day a success.”

As a kid I did not get it totally when I failed an exam or did not win a competition. But today I realize it’s the most valuable piece of advice I have ever got. Whether its science or your life things will go wrong. There will be successes in your life but the periods between them actually test your character and persistence. So whether it’s treating the rotating student in the lab with patience or helping in a colleague’s experiment with a smile even when you are having an off day actually show what kind of PI or scientist you will be in the future. I know quite a few highly successful people and trust me I don’t want to become them. Also follow your heart. I strongly believe each person has their own journey and trying to please the society is the most exhausting and thankless task ever. Nobody cares about your perfect social network profiles and none of us here is running for the presidency anyways. If at the end of the day, you can look at yourself in the mirror and be content with your actions that’s the best we all can do. 

So be real if you can because if nothing else your truth can inspire or motivate the next person passing through the same situation. I know I stayed at the same institute because of personal reasons but I tried my best to do great here and right now I won’t trade this postdoc experience for anything. Science without empathy is useless. So if you are an unhappy person I don’t believe you can do great science. So take time off for yourself. Whether its athletics or the arts or spending time with friends or family do it because it’s equally important. Unfortunately, your lab mice can’t be your support system so be appreciative of people who have been there for you when you were doing justice to the tag of a “mad scientist.” I have a very long list of people whom I owe whatever little success I have had. Heather and the Graham family were like my adopted family during my grad school. I know it’s not possible to take everyone’s names here. But one very special friend who has been there quite unconditionally picking me up whenever I am down during the last few years is Rae/Dr. Jamshidi and I honestly can’t imagine San Antonio without her. 

Lastly, UT Health San Antonio/GSBS has been a great institution to be part of. I can truly vouch that GSBS and its people are the most supportive group any grad student can hope for. However, I think one of the things which I feel all of us are still working on is to gain a true sense of equality where people are not hold to different standards just based on their visa or marital status. Just because we have our families in a different country or are not married or don’t have kids to be picked up from daycare do not have to necessarily mean we are not entitled to have a life just as the next person. It’s actually maybe harder for us because we don’t have a significant other at home to help us or a smiling kid’s face to distract us from our troubles. 

A personal life choice should not be a deciding factor in your professional life. Having preconceived notions of a single woman just chilling all the time whenever she is not at work is as much of a problem as bias against the pregnant person. So all I can say is be brave, break the glass ceiling/wall/closet or whatever barrier you need to, be humble, don’t hurt people in your quest of the hypothetical “perfect life” and above all if you are passionate and persistent nothing can stop you from eventually achieving those big dreams. But don’t forget what makes you unique and extraordinary is your journey, not the destination. 

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